Inspired by the global call for action by the Indignados movement in Spain, the protests and revolutions across the Arab World and the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City, activists organised to launch Occupy Melbourne in City Square on 15 October 2011. Occupy Melbourne sought to transform City Square into a ‘common’ space of political demonstration where people could learn, discuss and demonstrate about issues of concern. In particular, the abuses of political and corporate power, globalised neo-liberalism, the imposition of austerity, and the privatisation of public services.
Six days later, in the early hours of Friday 21 October 2011, Occupy Melbourne protesters were requested by Melbourne City Council to leave City Square. A few days earlier, Lord Mayor Doyle claimed that the protesters had a ‘right to protest’ but that this right was time-restricted. ‘A week’, claimed Doyle, ‘was a reasonable time for their mindless shriek of protest’. Assistant Commissioner Fontana was reported as saying: ‘They’ve [protesters] had more than ample time to make their point in terms of what their protest is about and I think it’s time to give the City Square back to the citizens of Melbourne.’ If it is to be meaningful, any political ‘right to protest’ needs to protect how protesters make their point. Continuous protest in the form of an ‘occupation’ was central to the mode of protest that the Occupy Movement took. Placing time restriction on this defeats the specific objective of the global Occupy movement. Therefore many protesters remained in the City Square, and others joined them in asserting the ‘public’ nature of the Square and the right to be in and create open spaces for political demonstration and communication. The Square was fenced off from protesters, and basically surrounded by police.
At around 11:30am, Victorian Police officers from the Public Order Response Team in groups of 4–6 officers advance towards Occupiers and physically remove them one by one, carrying or dragging them out of City Square. Occupiers who have linked arms are wrenched out of that formation. Over 100 people are removed in this way from City Square. Communal and private property was removed from the site. Prior to this violent eviction from City Square a crowd of hundreds gather to watch and support protesters in the Square.
One year on from the controversial eviction ‘Occupy Policing: A Report into the Effects and Legality of the Eviction of Occupy Melbourne from City Square on 21 October 2011‘ is highly critical of the authorities—Melbourne City Council and Victoria Police—who authorised and effected the eviction. The Report documents the personal stories of people who took part in the Occupy Melbourne protests and their experiences of policing. It complements these personal stories with an account of the relevant law. The Report was published by the Occupy Melbourne Legal Support Team (‘OMLST’) and is endorsed by the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre, Fitzroy Legal Service, the Federation of Community Legal Centre and the National Police Accountability Network.
The Report documents the harmful effects of this policing operation both on individuals and also on the capacity and willingness of people to engage in political dissent. ‘Today my whole perception of what freedom means to me in Australia was turned on its head as I witnessed the scariest brutality I have ever seen police conduct’, Emily, 37, stated to the OMLST. The effects of such violence can be traumatising. Many protesters at Occupy Melbourne were new to activism and had no previous experiences of the violence inflicted in the name of ‘public order’. Protesters’ statements collated in the Report speak of the terror experienced from policing operations, including mounted police charging through the protest and the use of dog squads. The Report documents physical injuries sustained in the policing of Occupy Melbourne, cuts, grazes and bruises as well as serious injuries including broken noses, black eyes and back injuries. It also documents longer-term psychological effects. ‘For a while I would feel a wave of anxiety/panic come over me whenever I walked past or saw a police officer’, Sasha, 25, told the OMLST. The Report also argues that such violence has broader political effects in that it has a ‘stifling’ effect and acts as a deterrent to people joining and participating in movements for progressive social change.
The Report examines the various legal bases used to justify the eviction of Occupy Melbourne; breaches of local law; trespass in a public place; common law ‘breach of the peace’ powers, and; controversial statutory ‘Move-On’ powers. The Report finds that none of these bases are substantiated, and that the forceful removal of Occupy Melbourne protesters by Victoria Police and Melbourne City Council appears to have been unlawful.
These findings endorse the comments made by Liberty Victoria President Spencer Zifcak who described the legal grounds relied upon by Melbourne City Council and Victoria Police as ‘flimsy’ and ‘uncertain’. Its analysis highlights the problematic nature of police use of breach of the peace powers to justify repressive action, and points to how breach of the peace powers give police large amounts of discretion and have been used by police to instigate ‘order’ and suppress dissent, especially because these laws are difficult to challenge on the spot.
The use of force in removing Occupy Melbourne protesters from City Square and policing the subsequent protest in the Central Business District shocked the national and international community. Occupy Melbourne protesters were the first in the Occupy movement globally to be subjected to a violent policing intervention. The Report argues that there is ample evidence available as a matter of public record of excessive and unnecessary use of force. The Report documents police use of bodily force such as grabbing and dragging protesters by the neck, legs, arms; throwing and pushing protesters to the ground; punching and kicking protesters, including in the face; use of chokeholds and pressure points; and kneeing protesters in the face and groin. It further argues that such use of force arguably breaches legislative restrictions on the use of force including Victoria Police’s own internal guidelines and that individual police officers need to be held accountable for these breaches. The Report also documents the use of chokeholds, horses and OC spray in ways which were both harmful and arguably in breach of internal guidelines.
Through the course of the morning much larger numbers of Melbournians gathered in the Central Business District. Some gathered to support, some to observe, and some to demonstrate against the forcible removal and policing of Occupy Melbourne. Between 11:45 and approximately 5pm, this protest was pushed by police up Swanston Street, along Lonsdale and Russell Streets. During the afternoon, police used ‘snatch squads’ to grab people—some who appeared to be protest ‘leaders’ and others who were simply bystanders on their lunch break—from the street. Over the afternoon, approximately 100 people were taken into police custody. Protesters were taken to police stations including St Kilda, Heidelberg, St Kilda Road, North Melbourne, Moonee Ponds, Altona, Melbourne Custody Centre and Moorabbin. Others protesters were held for shorter periods. Some protesters were driven away from the Central Business District and released in seemingly random locations, including a paddock in Altona. A large proportion of protesters were held in custody for many hours, both in brawler vans and at police stations across Melbourne. The conditions of confinement were inadequate. The Report argues police were arguably acting outside of their legitimate power and internal guidelines in detaining people pursuant to ‘breach of the peace’ powers. It finds that the actions of police in detaining approximately 100 people on 21 October 2011 may well have exceeded their lawful powers and constituted false imprisonment.
One year after the events of the eviction, as far as the OMLST has been able to ascertain, no protesters have been charged with trespass or with any violent offences relating to 21 October 2011. One year later, the authorities which authorised the eviction and the policing operation have not been held accountable for their actions, individual police officers who acted contrary to guidelines on use of force also have yet to be held accountable for their actions. One year later, it is urgently time for an independent investigation to document and assess the events of the 21 October 2011 in order to authorise such accountability processes. As Tamar Hopkin, Principle Solicitor, Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre writes in her forward to the Report, such an independent inquiry is ‘not only necessary to restore the community’s faith that the rule of law still operates in Victoria, but is required under international human rights law where allegations of human rights abuses have been made.’
Julia Dehm and Sara Dehm are PhD Candidates at Melbourne Law School.